Love to cook but hate shopping? These days, there are a lot of options to having groceries delivered. But what if you want to go a step further and, say, have someone else plan a recipe, gather all the ingredients and do much of the prep work? That thought process was the inspiration for two creative ways to help us cook homemade dinners. In one, a box with meal instructions and all the components arrives each week at your door. In the other, you go to a meal assembly store, where you put together an array of dinners for your freezer.
In recent years, several incarnations of these ideas have come and gone around the country. Two successful ventures now serve most zip codes in Los Angeles: Blue Apron, which delivers fresh ingredients and recipes; and Dream Dinners stores, where you prepare and pack up meals.
“Our recipes are designed for everyone from kitchen novices to experienced home cooks,” a spokesperson told us. After you sign up and customize your menu plan, the ingredients and instructions arrive in a refrigerated box – everything you need to prepare a week’s worth of meals is included, but you still have to wash produce, chop and, well, cook. After all, that’s the whole idea here. And, it probably goes without saying, you need to have things like knives, wooden spoons and a couple of pots and pans. (The company has a blog on basic kitchen tools, to help beginners get up to speed.)
The Blue Apron culinary team develops six new recipes each week, based on seasonal ingredients, most under 600 calories per serving. For the week of Sept. 22, choices include blackened chile-dusted chicken and furikake-topped salmon. “Our goal with each recipe is to introduce our customers to a new cuisine, cooking technique, or ingredient.” Recipes and how-to videos are available for anyone to see online, even if you don’t subscribe. There’s also a recent cookbook, with more in the works.
Blue Apron works directly with hundreds of farmers and local artisans; the company says this allows them to get ingredients that are fresher and cheaper than what can typically be found at a grocery store. “We’ve also developed relationships with purveyors for unique specialty ingredients like fairytale eggplants, ramen noodles from Sun Noodles, watermelon radishes, and garlic scapes, so we can give our customers access to cooking with ingredients they wouldn’t normally be able to find in their local markets.”
The cost is $9.99 per person, per meal. You sign up to receive the goods to make three meals per week (to feed two, four or six people). You can cancel the subscription or skip a delivery at any time, with one week’s notice.
To get started, guests visit DreamDinners,com and select a local store and session time. Then they order from 17 monthly menu items. For September, choices include cranberry buttermilk chicken, New Orleans jambalaya, and Thai seafood soup over jasmine rice. A number of dinners are designated as heart healthy.
“Guests choose meals from seasonal, changing monthly menus that they prepare in-store without the hassle of planning, shopping and chopping,” a spokesperson explained. “Dream Dinners lays out the ingredients in an easy-to-follow format so that guests can assemble a month’s worth of meals in about an hour.” The store supplies disposable baking pans and storage bags and containers. The assembled meals are taken home in a cooler, then frozen. Each dinner comes with instructions on how to thaw and cook the food.
Rocky Munoz, manager of Dream Dinners in Thousand Oaks, says a variety of people visit the store, from working mothers, to couples on a date, to single fathers preparing meals with their kids. The store also has hosted baby showers and a fundraiser for a cancer patient, whose friends stocked up her freezer. “When guests first come in, they look at it as a novelty, something fun to do. Later, they realize that they’re cooking and they feel like a chef. They’re getting compliments from their family about how great the dinner is, and they didn’t have to think about it,” says Munoz.
All of the food is provided by restaurant supplier Sysco. Meals are assembled in portions to feed three or six people; there is a minimum of 36 servings per order. Prices vary, depending on the menu selection, with the average cost being about $5 to $6 per serving. New guests may sign up for an introductory offer of 18 servings for $74.95. Repeat customers can accumulate points toward discounts (kind of like a frequent flyer program) and earn a personalized apron.